A quick Google search will tell you it’s Dr. Bob Lutz, who has held the position since May 2017. But a landing page on the regional health district’s website with Lutz’s name in the URL reads, “Oops! Looks like that page doesn’t exist.”
This strange result is just the beginning of a confoundingly complicated legal, political, and logistical mess that local residents deemed a “shitshow” of an effort to oust Lutz, and a particularly ill-timed one, considering the COVID-19 surge currently plaguing the area.
“I am extremely upset and devastated and furious and hurt,” epidemiologist Anna Halloran, who has worked under Lutz, told The Daily Beast. “We’re asking for health and science over partisan politics.”
Lutz is certainly not alone among health officials in seeing his job security tested by the coronavirus. Since the pandemic began, dozens of state and local public health leaders around the U.S. have been vilified, threatened with violence, fired, burned out. Many have resigned after the job became untenable, as several reports have noted, due to the divisive politicization of everything from masks and lockdowns to infection data.
As for whether Dr. Lutz—who has served as the top expert for the region, leading a team of epidemiologists and disease investigators, educating businesses and schools on best practices, wielding the authority to enforce state and local health laws, and consulting with the state on local reopenings—is still on the job, it depends on whom you ask.
Last week, the health district’s administrator, Amelia Clark, fired Lutz—according to him.
“To be clear, Amelia Clark fired me last Thursday,” Lutz said in a statement late Monday. “She told me in a meeting late Thursday afternoon that I was terminated ‘effective immediately,’ requested my [district] identification, keys, cell phone, and laptop, and told me I could contact HR to retrieve my personal items.”
“As things stand, I was told I was fired and have been denied access to my office, phone, files, records, and my computer since last Thursday. I do not know who is currently acting as the [district’s] public health officer.”
But it’s more accurate to say Clark tried to remove Lutz, until questions were raised about whether she—or only the region’s health board, instead—had the legal authority to do so. City Council President Breean Beggs told The Daily Beast on Monday that Spokane’s by-laws clearly stipulate that only the board has the right to dismiss Lutz. So, as The Spokesman-Review reported, Clark requested Lutz’s resignation.
“I have not resigned,” Lutz said in a statement to the paper late last week, in which he announced that he’d hired legal counsel. “I maintain a strong desire to continue working to promote the health and safety of the citizens of Spokane County and this region.”
Anti-mask protests, pro-Lutz protests, and—more recently—a petition calling for Clark’s firing have exaggerated firm fault lines in the community over the health district.
Over the weekend, hundreds of locals protested in front of the department—an admittedly atypical response to the removal of a local bureaucrat. But this was no usual circumstance. Residents and local officials interviewed by The Daily Beast on Monday repeatedly compared the adoration of Lutz as health officer to the national deifying of Dr. Anthony Fauci—the top infectious disease expert-turned-celebrity who has led the country through historic upheaval with the guidance of science and century-old public health practices.
Like Fauci, who has famously been undermined from within and publicly excoriated by the president he advises, Lutz would appear to have his share of internal skeptics. He also has plenty of steadfast admirers who fear their man’s ouster will make a bad situation even worse at exactly the wrong time, with COVID-19 cases shooting up nationwide.
Among the attendees of the—socially distanced, heavily masked—demonstration in support of Lutz were members of his team, including Halloran, who has been employed at the health district for 13 years.
“He’s qualified, he's competent, he’s supportive and thoughtful and compassionate and respectful and decent,” she said. “He lets people practice drawing blood from his own arm. He’s exemplary at every single turn. Why on earth would you remove a health officer during a pandemic?”
Locals told The Daily Beast that Lutz’s demeanor and resolve were all the more impressive considering the backlash he’s endured. This summer, after a man with COVID-19 repeatedly refused to abide by quarantine orders, Lutz ordered that he be jailed, KREM-TV reported. Afterward, about 30 people gathered outside Lutz’s home with megaphones and signs to “promote conspiracy theories and push back on state and county mandates on mask-wearing in public,” The Review reported.
The state medical association, county medical society, and even the local NAACP chapter issued statements in Lutz’s defense after the push to oust him began. The Spokane County Medical Society said on Saturday that it gathered more than 100 signatures from healthcare professionals who opposed his removal.
Lifelong Spokane resident Rob Salsbury, 62, told The Daily Beast that the dispute over the “well-regarded” health authority was “a shock.” Salsbury said he’s a father and at high-risk for severe COVID-19 infection, so he has appreciated Lutz’s effective leadership for the community.
“It’s kind of hard to understand why they would want to terminate him,” said Salsbury, even for political reasons. “He doesn’t call the shots on when businesses open. He provides important guidance and direction.”
“In a landscape of fear and confusion, he’s been a steadying voice for Spokane,” said Salsbury.
In particular, the NAACP’s statement of support called the attempted ouster “sudden, secretive, and untimely,” noting that Lutz has been “a thoughtful and genuine ally” as COVID-19 has disproportionately sickened and killed communities of color across the nation. The release condemned Clark and the health board as “vague and dismissive.”
During a press conference last week, Clark and Ben Wick, the Spokane Regional Health District Board chairman and Spokane Valley mayor, repeatedly refused to explain why Lutz was being asked to resign, citing a “personnel issue.” Wick has reportedly said “the decision was difficult and not made lightly” but that he “cannot specify any details.”
The health district, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment left by The Daily Beast on Monday, released a statement on Saturday acknowledging “that this is a difficult timing for such a transition” and noting that Clark “would not have sought the employment separation of Dr. Lutz during the COVID 19 pandemic if other viable options were available.”
The statement cited “performance issues” that “needed to be addressed immediately.”
Wick said the board generally supported Clark’s decision to ask Lutz to resign. But Beggs, who is also on the board, has said he opposes the effort to force Lutz out.
“It’s public knowledge that they do not get along with each other,” Beggs told The Daily Beast of Clark. “There’s no allegation of a particular bad event or anything like that.”
Over the weekend, the district announced it would schedule a public meeting to discuss Clark’s proposal, where the 12-member health board would give Lutz a chance to respond, before voting on the matter. That meeting has not yet been scheduled.
In the meantime, Halloran, the epidemiologist who attended the pro-Lutz demonstration, said her team “has been told” that he is “still legally our health officer at the moment.” But Lutz’s statement late Monday, in which he said he had no keys, phone, computer, or consent to continue his work, seemed to throw a wrench in that.
Beggs said that “despite several requests, the district has still not clarified who is currently acting as Spokane’s Local Health Officer.” There are decisions that only the health officer can make, documents that only the health officer can sign, he said.
In defense of Lutz, a group of Spokane residents started a Change.org petition to remove Clark over the dispute. As of Tuesday morning, it had garnered nearly 6,000 signatures.
Another local outlet, Inlander, first reported on Monday that Clark is already, separately, being sued over another dismissal by the district’s former division director of health promotion. A response filed in court by the health district denied all claims made by that former division director. The department did not respond to a request for comment from Inlander about the lawsuit, according to the weekly. Clark did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.
One of Lutz’s other vocal defenders, Dr. Kim Thorburn, served in the same role previously. “My strong suspicion is that they are really against his outspokenness,” Thorburn told the Review. “The community should be up in arms; he’s done a good job giving solid information.”
Residents like Salsbury say the prospect of facing the next few weeks without a leader is “scary.”
“It’s going to be a really bad winter, even if we do everything right,” he told The Daily Beast on Monday. “There’s still a growth curve. I’m guessing they did this for some political reasons or economics, and they just totally miscalculated. Unless there’s something really egregious he did that nobody knows about. Other than that, why would they do this?”